Final Verdict Review of the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (Podcast 464)

Final Verdict Review of the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (Podcast 464)

Following on from my First Impressions review of the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, today we’re going to dive in a little deeper, and see how this new offering faired during my Winter Wonderland Tours here in Japan over the last few months.

Although I’ll touch on some of these areas again today, I ran through many of the great new features in that earlier First Impressions review, which was episode 453, so check that out as well to hear more about what’s new. One of my main objectives while shooting through January and February was to really try to pull the most out of the autofocus, because as we heard in my first review, I was not really impressed with how well the camera handles subjects coming towards the camera.

Another thing we’d not looked at yet was the ISO Performance of the 7D Mark II, so I’ve done some more tests and have got information regarding that to share with you as well today.

Am I Happy with the 7D Mark II?

OK, so the first thing that I’d like to get to, is really somewhat subjective, but very important, as I know that some people have not been happy with the 7D Mark II, especially because of the autofocus capabilities in certain situations. Well, if you ask me if I’m in general happy with this new camera, the answer is a resounding “YES”! It’s not perfect, and we’ll get to that shortly, but I am absolutely happy with my 7D Mark II. It’s a very worthwhile addition to my kit.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

I mentioned in that first review that I might even consider selling my 1D X. Is that still the case? Well, no, not really. Why? Because the 7D Mark II starts to get a little noisy as you push up the ISO, and I have some images that I simply could not have got without the 1D X, so it stays, for now. However, I have to say that I’ll probably be revisiting this decision as I actually work through the rest of this year, based on just how much I really use the 1D X now that I have the 7D Mark II.

During my Winter Wonderland Tours & Workshops, I was using the 1D X basically as my second camera most of the time. After deletions during my initial run through my images, I see that from January 26 to February 26, I shot 18,931 images with the 7D Mark II, and I shot just 1,565 with my 1D X, which is less than 10% of my images for this time period.

Part of this was because I really wanted to see how well the 7D Mark II performed, and sometimes, even though I would have preferred to not have the crop factor for a wider field of view, I stuck with the 7D Mark II for test purposes. Most of the time though, I just loved having that crop factor for my wildlife work, and the extra 2 megapixels from the 7D Mark II are very welcome as well.

Intelligent Viewfinder II

I found the new Intelligent Viewfinder II a pleasure to work with, and although the 1D X is still a great camera, I just found things like having the digital level right there in the viewfinder all the time very useful. It’s also great to be able to see at a glance what shooting mode I’m in as well as other information that you can now display right there in the viewfinder.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II Intelligent Viewfinder II

Canon EOS 7D Mark II Intelligent Viewfinder II

AF Point Coverage

Another thing that I really like is the wider autofocus point coverage. The 1D X seems to have all of it’s 61 AF points scrunched up in the middle of the frame, whereas the 7D Mark II’s AF points almost fill the frame! Especially for birds in flight, this gives us much more freedom as to where in the frame we can place the subject and still be able to track it with our autofocus.

Autofocus Performance

Although the 7D Mark II does have AF points across such a wide area of the frame, it did take me quite some time to really get the most out of the AI Servo tracking capability, and I mentioned the problems I was having in my earlier First Impressions review. As I’ve shot more with this camera and continued to tweak my settings, I have greatly increased my success to fail ratio for subjects moving towards the camera, which were initially the most problematic.

Although I tried lots of combinations as I tested this camera, my Tracking Sensivity, Accel./decel. tracking and AF pt auto switching settings ended up going back to pretty much what I’ve always used with the 1D X. As you can see in this photograph of my settings (below), I add these three settings to the My Menu on the camera for easy access, and I changed these a lot over the two tours trying to find my optimal settings.

7D Mark II AI Servo Settings

7D Mark II AI Servo Settings

For both the snow monkeys running towards me, and birds in flight, both subjects moving erratically, I found these settings to work the best. I have Tracking sensitivity set to -2, Accel./decel. tracking set to 1 and for AF pt auto switching I’ve been moving between 0 and 1 depending on the subject, depending on how accurately it’s working in a given situation.

With erratically moving subjects it’s important for the AF points to switch around quickly, so it’s tempting to increase the AF pt auto switching sensitivity, but as you increase the sensitivity, the focus often switches to an unwanted part of the scene too readily, so I found myself with AF pt auto switching set to zero most of the time.

This as I say is pretty much how I use my 1D X. As you can see in this stitch of six frames of a snow monkey coming down a snow bank towards me, screen-captured in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional with the AF Points displayed, the autofocus stayed with the face of the monkey for five of the six frames. Click on this to view larger so that you can see the active focus points, but you’ll see that the focus stays pretty much with his face for five of the six frames.

AI Servo Tracking Success (click to view larger)

AI Servo Tracking Success (click to view larger)

This level of accuracy is what I was hoping for, and was finally able to draw from the 7D Mark II. I still get the feeling that the overall success rate for this kind of AI Servo shooting isn’t quite up to the levels that I get with the 1D X, but without shooting exactly the same subject at exactly the same moment with both cameras simultaneously, it’s hard to quantify that.

ISO Performance

OK, so let’s move on and take a look at the image quality and ISO performance. As I’ve done in previous reviews of the 1D X and 5D Mark III, for these ISO performance tests, I simply set up a shot, with some light and shade areas, and shot a series of images going through the entire ISO range of the 7D Mark II in full stops and I’ve compared that with the 1D X. There is no ISO 50 on the 7D Mark II, so I started at ISO 100 on both cameras. The maximum ISO you can set on the 7D Mark II is 51200, but the 1D X goes up to 204800, so I included these last two ISOs for the 1D X as well, for comparison.

I used a 100mm macro lens for the tests, and set the camera’s aperture to f/10. Note that because of the 7D Mark II crop factor I did have to move the camera to try to frame both sets of images similarly, but they are not identical, and don’t really need to be to be able to appreciate the results.

First up, here is a gallery of 22 images resized to 1440 pixels wide, just so that you can get a feel for the downsized image quality at the entire ISO range. The labels below each image tell you which camera the image was shot with, and at what ISO. Don’t forget to open your browser up wide enough to see the images at their full size, or you’ll be looking at a browser generated smaller version.

Looking at these results, I’m sure you’ll agree that if you are shooting for Web or relatively low resolution presentation, then up to 12800 ISO is perfectly acceptable, and if you are OK with a bit of noise, even up to 51200 is pretty good still.

Here is another gallery of images, this time, 100% crops of the black cat with the shadow from the zebra. This gives us a good comparison of the noise levels in both the lighter areas and the shadows, where noise is generally more obvious. Click on the images and take a look at the noise in each as you click through them, and do take a moment to compare even the first pair of images at ISO 100.

Image Quality Trade-Off

The first thing that I noticed confirmed what I had started to think about the images from the 7D Mark II based on my shooting in the field over the last few months. Basically, the 7D Mark II produces lower quality images than the 1D X, even at the lowest ISO settings. From ISO 100 you can see grain in the 7D Mark II images, although this doesn’t really start to become visible in images from the 1D X until you hit around ISO 400.

Now, let’s not take this information out of context here. We have to keep in mind that the older brother 1D X is 3.5 times the price, and is a full-frame sensor camera. Because of the crop factor and higher resolution, the 7D Mark II’s pixels are smaller at 4.1 µm (micrometer) compared to the almost 1.7 times larger 6.95 µm pixels in the 1D X. (As pointed out below, we probably should have used the area of the photosites here, so the 1D X photosites are 2.87 larger than the 7D Mark II, not 1.7 – thanks Thomas!) There’s no getting around this, as you simply have to cram more pixels onto the sensor to achieve the resolution of the 7D Mark II.

Like everything, it’s a trade-off. Two reasons I’ve been using the 7D Mark II over the 1D X is because of the crop factor which works in our favour for some wildlife photography, and the higher resolution, which is always nice to have if it doesn’t come at too much of a drop in image quality.

And that, is the most important thing to bear in mind here. Yes, the 7D Mark II produces lower quality images than the 1D X, but do I consider that to be a problem? Absolutely not. I’ll continue to use the 7D Mark II for the benefits that it brings to my photography, and at the end of the day, the image quality is still off the charts if you don’t compare it to a much more expensive full frame sensor counterpart. (See some images from the field to back this up in last week’s 100-400mm Mark II lens review.)

ISO Performance Drops Two Stops

Now, back to the ISO performance comparison. To me, it looks like the two stops of performance that starts right down at ISO 100, compared to ISO 400 on the 1D X, holds pretty much through the entire ISO range. Here are the same images as above, but this time I’ve ordered them with ISO 100 on the 7D Mark II next to two stops higher ISO from the 1D X, so we start at ISO 100 vs. 400, then 200 vs. 800 and so on. As we get into the higher ISOs, the shadow noise from the 1D X increases compared to two stops lower ISO on the 7D Mark II, but the brighter areas such as the cat’s face hold out much better on the 1D X.

If we bear this all in mind, as I say, I’m thinking that the 1D X has about two stops better ISO performance than the 7D Mark II. If you recall back to my 5D Mark III review, I found that the 5D Mark III had about one stop lower ISO performance than the 1D X, so it’s right in the middle of these two cameras.

My 7D Mark II ISO Ceiling

With all of my cameras, I like to decide on a ceiling to which I’ll take the ISO, based on tests like these and real-world use cases in the field. With my 1D X, this has in practice been ISO 12800. I have images from the field at this ISO that I am very happy to have been able to shoot, and the image quality is there. With the 7D Mark II, I’ve happily gone up to ISO 3200, and based on these tests will probably go up to 6400 if I need to.

ETTR for Best ISO Performance

Before you jump on your keyboard and start to write me that I’m crazy, or that you don’t see this level of performance from your camera, take a moment to consider that I always Expose to the Right, a technique known as ETTR. I’m not going to delve into this today, but basically, because I expose my images so that the information on the histogram is just about touching the right shoulder, I get better ISO performance from my camera than you will say, if you trust the camera’s meter, and you have a large gap on the right side of your histogram. There’s simply less noise if you expose to the right, even if that means increasing your ISO by a few stops to achieve the brighter exposure. See episode 381 if you’d like to learn more about this.

The Final Verdict

OK, so let’s wrap this up now, with my final verdict on the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. The autofocus doesn’t feel quite as snappy as the 1D X for subjects advancing towards me, although it’s now very acceptable, and the image quality is not quite as good by comparison, but still exceptionally good. These two things are the only even slightly negative aspects. When you consider all the great points about this camera, that we’ve covered in this and my First Impressions review, and then think of the price, at almost a quarter of the cost of the 1D X, I think Canon are on to a winner here.

For many, the 1D X is out of reach, but I honestly don’t think you need to be too concerned about that if this is the case for you. If you need a wildlife or sports camera, don’t want to break the bank, you won’t go far wrong with the 7D Mark II. I have both but I’m sure I’ll continue to reach for the 7D Mark II over the 1D X moving forward, unless I need to literally be able to shoot in the dark, which is where the 1D X still has the ultimate edge. Honestly, the extra reach you get from the crop factor and the higher resolution among other things all make the 7D Mark II in many ways, the better camera.

Either way, I hope you found these reviews useful, and remember, if you buy from our friends at B&H, you can help to support our Podcast and Blog by buying with our links below. And if you feel like splurging, I also mentioned in last week’s podcast, the 7D Mark II and Canon’s new 100-400mm lens are a match made in heaven, so I’ll just go ahead and reuse last week’s widget just in case.

New Fine Art Print Giveaway!

Before we finish, I also wanted to let you know that we have started a new fine art print giveaway draw to win a print of a photo from January’s Hokkaido Landscape Photography tour. Just visit the page and enter your name and email address to subscribe to our newsletter, and enter for a chance to win. I’ll be drawing the winner on June 14, 2015, and remember that you can enter this draw even if you’ve entered previous draws.

Boat Graveyard #2

Boat Graveyard #2

Show Notes

Canon EOS 7D Mark II on B&H: Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Music by Martin Bailey


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